ANKARA (Reuters) - The Turkish government has pushed through legislation increasing police search powers and reforming courts in a move one senior judge said threatened to erode the judicial culture of the country.
Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag, commenting on laws passed by parliament on Tuesday night, said prosecutors and judges had been hampering police work by refusing permission for searches to take place.
Critics of President Tayyip Erdogan, whose AK Party swept to power 12 years ago, accuse him of seeking to emasculate a judiciary he sees as infiltrated by supporters of ally-turned-foe U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Erdogan accuses Gulen of engineering a graft inquiry last year in an attempt to discredit and topple him, a charge the cleric denies.
The bill will see two top courts, the Court of Appeals and the Council of State, restructured, with new judges being added and the years of seniority required to be elected reduced.
Bozdag said the changes would help ease judges' workload, but Ali Alkan, chief judge in the top Yargitay appeals court, said:
"These amendments contain by their nature, the possibility of inflicting serious damage to the Court, the judicial culture, the independence of the judiciary and the nature of the appeal assessments."
He said the court had not been consulted.
The reform will clip the Yargitay's powers, removing its authority to veto judges assigned to cases by the HSYK council of judges. Judges seen as pro-government prevailed in an HSYK election in October.
Concerns about government influence are also fueled by an increase in the number of members and chambers in the top courts and with the justice ministry taking on 4,000 trainee judges.
Erdogan accuses Gulenists in the police and judiciary of conniving at a corruption scandal that broke late last year, engulfing high-ranking members of the government.
The government reacted by removing thousands of police, prosecutors and judges.
Transparency International's annual Corruption Perceptions Index this week saw Turkey plummeting 14 places to 64th out of 175 countries, with the graft allegations and their aftermath widely seen as to blame.
The new laws lower the threshold of evidence required for searches of people or premises to "reasonable suspicion" from "strong suspicion based on evidence".
"The instrument of (police) searches has not yielded the desired results.... Reasonable doubt is applicable in continental Europe as well," Bozdag said.
A leading secular opposition CHP party official said the changes took Turkey closer to a "Fuhrer regime".
"With the 'reasonable doubt' regulation introduced by this law, anyone who is an AK Party opponent has been declared a potential criminal," CHP Deputy Chairman Veli Agbaba said.
Reporting by Gulsen Solaker and Ayse Sarioglu, Writing by Jonny Hogg; Editing by Daren Butler and Ralph Boulton